WASHINGTON – Legislation to set up a $140 billion fund to pay people sickened by asbestos cleared its first hurdle Tuesday when Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid reversed course and removed his objection to debating it.
The Senate voted 98-1 to allow the measure, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to the floor for its first-ever debate, expected to take place over the next two weeks. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., cast the sole vote against; Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., did not vote.
Despite its progress, the bill itself still faces stiff opposition from Reid, several Republicans and a well-funded campaign by trial lawyers and others.
"We focused attention on what some believe are the flaws in the process leading to Senate consideration of the bill and the flaws of the bill itself," Reid said, dropping his objection while making clear he still opposes the legislation.
"I welcome that debate," said Reid, D-Nev. "One would have to search long and hard to find a bill in my opinion as bad as this."
Republicans quickly declared victory, saying Reid was fighting a losing battle in trying to prevent the bill from coming to the floor.
"The votes were present by midafternoon to shut off this filibuster," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor.
"Obstruction is not the way to help asbestos victims get the justice they deserve," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in a statement. Reid's "dramatic reversal is a positive first step."
Two days of behind-the-scenes maneuvering cleared the way for debate on the bill, according to senior Republican and Democratic aides involved in the talks.
Specter's bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would pay asbestos victims from a $140 billion privately supported trust fund in exchange for halting all asbestos-related court cases.
Supporters say the proposal would speed relief to people sickened by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral commonly used until the mid-1970s in insulation and fireproofing material. Its tiny fibers can cause cancer and other ailments when inhaled, but the diseases often take decades to develop. Such a fund would keep many businesses sued by asbestos victims afloat, rather than vulnerable to crippling jury awards.
Opponents say the trust fund would be drained by claims and taxpayers would end up footing the bill. Some businesses say claims would then end up back in court and huge jury awards again would threaten businesses.
Even with the bill surviving its first procedural test, it faces other obstacles. Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is considering filing a procedural motion that would take 60 votes to overcome, on the grounds that that the bill would affect the budget in violation of the rules. Specter said no taxpayer money would be used for the fund or its expenses.